Gerald Almy: Mating season doesn’t end hunt

By Gerald Almy

Experienced deer hunters know that the best hunting for whitetails often takes place during the “pre-rut,” before peak breeding occurs. This is when deer seem to be moving everywhere, with bucks chasing does that are not quite ready to mate. The pre-rut typically coincides with the second week of muzzleloader season, which opens Nov. 1 and extends through Nov. 14 this year for most of the Shenandoah Valley.

Once the breeding season starts, around mid-November, there’s less movement because bucks have hooked up with does and are quietly breeding.

You can still have good hunting, though, during peak mating season by concentrating on specific areas where these breeding pairs are hunkered down. Find these secluded spots they slink off to for privacy while mating and you’ll up your odds for success during this period commonly known as “lockdown.”

Here are some typical areas where bucks and does might breed.

Hummock in a swamp: Deer love to hang out near swamps. For a secluded setting, a doe will lure a buck out into the swamp and find a dry hump that rises above the water where they can have total privacy.

Points: Deer love to enter fields at corners, but points sometimes get neglected. That’s why a doe will lead a buck here for an isolated spot where she can keep an eye on the surrounding fields.

Edge of rut chasing grounds: During the pre-rut, bucks and does use traditional chasing grounds to display and eyeball potential mates. Find these, and then walk the perimeter and key on the first piece of semi-thick cover off to the side where a couple might head as the pre-rut merges into the rut.

Isolated cover patch in an open field: This is a classic mating nest. It’s neglected by the majority of deer that don’t want to be penned up in this tiny brushy area. And it’s surrounded by leftover crops so the pair can nibble when not breeding.

Bowl in big woods:
Look for a place where the ground dips down into a bowl shape perhaps 40-80 yards across. Does love to run their mate playfully down into these depressions, back up the sides then settle down into the bowl for breeding.

Area below pond or lake dams: The wet drainage area below dams nurtures lots of weeds, brush and secondary foods and deer seem to like the structure itself. Sometimes they’ll venture up on the dam to survey the surroundings.

Isolated switchgrass clump: You won’t find a breeding couple in a large switchgrass field. Too many does like to bed there, and it’s a favorite pre-rut chasing ground. But often seeds get blown and a small patch of grass emerges separate from the main field. That’s your spot. Remember: breeding couples like a secluded area for privacy.

Cedar cluster: This is a difficult one because lots of them won’t produce. Look for very small cedar pockets with mixed age class trees isolated from other cover but close to pre-rut display areas.

Raspberry or blackberry thicket: I often encounter loner does in this dense cover, perhaps with one fawn but away from the main female groups. The biggest bucks seem particularly attracted to these shy does. You need more than just a bush or two, though. Scout hard and look for a 20×60 foot spread or brambles or larger.

Blowdowns: A single small fallen tree won’t attract breeding deer. But when a large, mature oak falls in big open woods, it provides browse, cover and “structure” that attracts mating deer. If a windstorm knocked two or three such trees down in a cluster, that makes prospects even better.

Island: Just like they use an island of brush in a field, mating deer will sometimes wade or swim out to a real island for seclusion. Use a boat or chest waders to reach them.

Jag along transition corridor: As does move from bedding cover to feed they travel regular transition corridors. Pinpoint these first. Then find a spot where a finger of cover juts off to the side, like a bulb. That’s a perfect spot for a buck to hang back watching for a doe to pull off the route when her hormones tell her she’s ready to mate.

Side Draw: Major hollows get too much traffic from other deer. But sometimes a smaller brushy side hollow will offer enough seclusion to draw an amorous buck and doe.

Confirming Your Findings

Breeding nests aren’t always occupied. You can verify you’ve found one, though, by finding large and medium tracks, two beds close together, moist droppings, plus scrapes and rut rubs where a buck pawed soil and thrashed bushes between breeding sessions.

If you find this type of sign, keep the spot on your radar. Check it again in a day or two and every year when “lockdown” arrives.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.